It’s “Nordic Cool” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Yes, it’s big and Nordic and it kicks off tonight for a whole month with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo and with Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen performing Nordic music by Sibelius, Alfvén, Grieg, Leif and Nielsen.Nordic Cool 2013

Never before, neither in the U.S. nor in Europe, has such a broad Nordic culture initiative taken place, and in this case it was a Kennedy Center’s initiative, with support from the five Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland).

– Yes, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity for the Nordic countries to showcase what is best in Nordic culture, said Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth at a press briefing today at the Swedish Embassy, ​​House of Sweden, here in Washington, DC.

All the Nordic countries, plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands, have turned up in full force with all they have to offer in music, theater, film, food, dance, architecture, art and design. From Sweden, except for the Royal Philharmonics, there is the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s production of “Fanny and Alexander”, performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, workshops on Nordic literature, not the least detective novels, and films like Jan Troell’s newest, “The Last Sentence.”

It will be interesting to see how this major Nordic venture is received by the American audiences. In any case, it’s a great chance for them to learn a lot about what makes northern Europe tick, and to tick so successfully.

Cool.

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An architectural treasure in smalltown Indiana

On our way recently by car to Chicago, through West Virginia and Kentucky, our destination was the little town of Columbus in southern Indiana, on the flat farmland between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.

Now, I usually stay away from the word “unique.” It is overused and few things are really unique. But the town of Columbus, Indiana is unique. With only 44,000 inhabitants it has become an architectural treasure. Six of Columbus’ modernist buildings have been declared National Historic Landmarks and little Columbus ranks sixth in America after the big cities of Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC as a premier architectural destination.

It all started when the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church opened during World War II. A bank and the stunning North Christian Church by his son Eero Saarinen followed, by then thanks to local engine maker Cummins Inc. and the vision of its CEO J. Irwin Miller and his new Cummins Foundation. Miller, born and raised in Columbus, clearly valued good architecture and good art and saw its importance to the quality of life of his home town, for his Foundation offered to pay the architects’ fees, first for the schools and then for any new public building in town.

Many a leading architect heard the call: I.M. Pei, Gunnar Birkerts, Robert Venturi, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, Robert Stern. Their work, office buildings, schools, fire stations, can be found all over town.

The Commons, designed in 2011 by Koetter Kim & Associates, with its gigantic climbing tree, is what must be one of the great indoor children’s playgrounds in any downtown.

The global headquarters of Cummins Inc. was designed by Kevin Roche and houses an engine museum with a stunning garden, created by landscape architect Jack Curtis. J. Irwin Miller lived until he died in in 2004 in a home designed by Eero Saarinen in 1957, with Alexander Girard’s interior design and Dan Kiley as landscape architect — all legends in American architecture.

Columbus is also the scene of great public art. Outside Pei’s library stands Henry Moore’s “Large Arch,” in front of The Commons is Bernar Venet’s red “2 Arcs de 212.5°,” in front of the splendid modern offices of the local newspaper The Republic, designed by Myron Goldsmith is “Birds of Fire” by Ted Sitting Crow Garner, and Dale Chihuly’s magnificent “Yellow Neon Chandelier and Persians” hangs in the Visitor Center.

It just goes on and on. Go there! There is nothing like it in all America.

For Pittsburgh, a new future without steel

On the road again…

…and once again to Pittsburgh, the old steel city among the green hills of western Pennsylvania, where old friends live in a city of optimism and hope.

From Mount Washington, where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers come together and become the Ohio River, the view of downtown Pittsburgh from the steep mountain as dramatic as in any other American city. Below, some twenty bridges in all directions cross the rivers between the city’s many neighborhoods. Among the skyscrapers downtown are some of America’s finest buildings, from the days of Carnegie, Heinz, and Mellon to modern masterpieces by Philip Johnson and others, and to native sons Andy Warhol’s and August Wilson’s museum and cultural center, respectively.

And across the rivers lie the splendid ballparks for the Steelers and the Pirates, important landmark in a city of passionate sports fans.

Carson Street on Pittsburgh’s south side reminds me of Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco’s old hippie neighborhood, with its galleries, rock clubs and small shops. Old mixes with new, former philosophy professor Edward Gelblum’s lovely old bookstore “City Books” with young Jake Nickman’s “Buddy’s Brew on Carson” – the finest of beer stores.

Coming into the city, along Monongahela River in Mon Valley, where the steel mills lie as giant monuments to a bygone era, side by side, mile after mile, in the small towns of McKeesport, Braddock, and Homestead, with furnaces long since cold and chimneys without smoke, the optimism and sense of hope might be a bit hard to understand. At its peak, the steel mills employed well over 100,000 workers, but in the crisis of the 70s and 80s, most of them lost their jobs, and Pittsburgh’s steel industry is only a fraction of what once was.

Today, Pittsburgh is the prime example that the old industrial cities in the “Rust Belt” can come back. But the recovery is based on something completely different than the steel, on distinguished universities and hospitals – biotech, green technology, health care, finance, and research. Today, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) logo is seen on top of what once was U.S. Steel’s 64-story headquarters, and with its 50,000 employees, the university hospital is western Pennsylvania’s largest employer.

It’s a city of history and character, and of excitement. I will return, again.